Trump pressed Australian PM for help with DOJ Russia probe review

Trump pressed Australian PM for help with DOJ Russia probe review
Sky News Australia via CNN
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison

President Donald Trump pressed Australia’s Prime Minister Scott Morrison during a recent phone call to help Attorney General William Barr with his review of the origins of the Russia probe, according to an official familiar with the call.

An official briefed on the matter said the attorney general has asked the President to request the help of several countries, including Australia, with the review of the early stages of the Russia investigation.

The call happened with Barr’s knowledge and at his suggestion, says the official. The New York Times first reported this call.

The official notes this is seeking assistance with the review, which is being conducted by US Attorney John Durham, and so is seen as appropriate and completely different from the Ukraine matter. Justice Department officials say that it is appropriate for the attorney general and the President to seek help from foreign countries with an investigation of 2016 election interference.

Justice Department spokesperson Kerri Kupec confirmed that Trump, at Barr’s request, has reached out to multiple other countries to ask them to assist Barr.

“At Attorney General Barr’s request, the President has contacted other countries to ask them to introduce the Attorney General and Mr. Durham to appropriate officials,” she said.

The Washington Post reported Monday that Barr has also held private meetings with foreign intelligence officials overseas seeking their help in the Justice Department inquiry into the origins of the Mueller probe, according to people familiar with the matter. Barr has made overtures to British intelligence officials, the Post said, citing one person familiar with the matter, and traveled to Italy last week meet with government officials where he asked the country to assist in the probe. Durham traveled with Barr last week, the Post reported.

White House deputy press secretary Hogan Gidley said Trump’s call to Australia’s Prime Minister was not a big deal.

“This call relates to a DOJ inquiry publicly announced months ago to uncover exactly what happened,” Gidley said in a statement to CNN. “The DOJ simply requested that the President provide introductions to facilitate that ongoing inquiry, and he did so, that’s all.”

An Australian spokesperson told CNN that the government stood ready to accede to Trump’s request.

“The Australian Government has always been ready to assist and cooperate with efforts that help shed further light on the matters under investigation. The PM confirmed this readiness once again in conversation with the President,” the spokesperson said.

Durham is examining what intelligence came from other countries that propelled the investigation that eventually became the Trump-Russia probe.

Officials believe that requesting foreign help with a retrospective look at 2016 election interference differs vastly from Trump’s request made in the Ukraine call transcript released last week.

A rough transcript released by the White House shows Trump repeatedly pushed Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden, Trump’s potential 2020 political rival, and his son Hunter Biden. There is no evidence of wrongdoing by Joe or Hunter Biden.

The transcript was released in response to news of a whistleblower complaint that alleges Trump abused his official powers “to solicit interference” from Ukraine in the 2020 election and that the White House took steps to cover it up. Trump has denied any wrongdoing

Even before the whistleblower complaint was made available to lawmakers, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi declared Trump had betrayed his oath of office, and she announced this past week that she was opening a formal impeachment inquiry into the President.

After Trump granted Barr the authority to declassify certain information related to the origins of the Russia investigation, he specified part of that effort should include looking into the United Kingdom and other countries that he claims may have been involved in nefarious activities meant to harm his election prospects.

“I hope he looks at the UK. And I hope he looks at Australia. And I hope he looks at Ukraine. I hope he looks at everything,” Trump said in May. “Because there was a hoax that was perpetrated on our country.”

Trump also suggested at the time there was a high probability he would raise the matter with then-UK Prime Minister Theresa May during their meeting in June, although it remains unclear if he did.

“I may very well talk to her about that, yeah,” he said at the time. “There’s word and rumor that the FBI and others were involved, CIA were involved, with the UK, having to do with the Russian hoax. And I may very well talk to her about that, yes.”

At the time, British officials said they would help if asked, though it’s unclear if they ever did.

“We heard what the President said, and if he raises it that’s fine,” a UK official told reporters over the summer.

“If we get that request, obviously we’ll consider it. The US is an ally and we want to be helpful. If the attorney general wants to talk to us about this, then I’m sure we’ll want to respond constructively.”

Trump’s move to pressure Australia for assistance with Barr’s review of the origin of the Mueller report underlines the President’s repeated rebukes of former special counsel Robert Mueller and his investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election.

Mueller’s report, which was released in April, detailed numerous cases in which Trump asked his aides to take actions that would have obstructed the investigation, but stated they were unsuccessful because the aides refused his orders. Mueller’s investigation pointedly states it was unable to conclude “no criminal conduct occurred.”

Trump has long derided the investigation as a “witch hunt.”

This story has been updated.

CNN’s Kaitlan Collins and Kevin Liptak contributed to this report.